The Harry Factor

The American fascination with royal families has been around for centuries, almost since we stopped having one of our own.
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The American fascination with royal families has been around for centuries, almost since we stopped having one of our own.
Prince Harry arriving at Capitol Hill on May 9, 2013. (PHOTO: GLYN LOWE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Prince Harry arriving at Capitol Hill on May 9, 2013. (PHOTO: GLYN LOWE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Now that Prince Harry has returned to Great Britain it’s maybe time to look critically on the significance of his visit for Americans. What are royal visits for? Why do Americans react to them so intensely?

The seven-day trip of His Royal Highness Prince Henry of Wales, coinciding with the visit of Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, sparked an intense, strange enthusiasm. But this sort of thing is nothing new. In fact, we’ve had the exact same fascination with foreign royal families for centuries, almost since we stopped have one of our own.

We’ve always been into this, the personalities of royalty, their habits, what they’re “really like.”

And it’s quite a fascination. In his stop in Washington, D.C., female congressional staffers (who, by the way, are professional adults with real jobs) crowded the congressional rotunda to capture their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the man who will one day be, well, the younger brother of the king of England, accompanied by Senator John McCain, looking at pictures of land mine atrocities being prevented by someone else.

During his trip to the Jersey Shore to observe rebuilding efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, one little girl holding a welcome sign shouted “Prince Harry, we love you!” Missy Franklin, someone who has already won four gold medals for swimming at the 2012 Summer Olympics wrote on Instagram that her opportunity to meet the prince was the “perfect way to end my 18th birthday!? Meeting Prince Harry! It was a honor meeting him and I had a blast as always."

Not everyone was quite so enthusiastic. “Prince Harry visited NJ towns hurt by Sandy, tossed ‘plastic balls at a hole.’ Everything now better,” tweeted CBS’s Brian Montopoli. "Prince Harry is here! Let's worship the super-rich offspring of two centuries of selective inbreeding," one blogger wrote sarcastically.

This is a little unfair. There's a lot of selective inbreeding, for sure, but one of Prince Harry’s forbears was, improbable as it seems, a dry goods clerk from Chillicothe, Ohio. But we get it. Who is Harry, really? And what has he done? Why should we care?

One Harry observer, otherwise no fan of monarchy, offered some praise for Harry as a person, saying this of the moment in his trip where he opened the Warrior Games for injured service members in Colorado. His kingdom had sent 35 wounded British soldiers, “people who were thrilled to see Harry for who he is in real life—a former combat helicopter pilot who served in Afghanistan. It was poignant that at this event he wore his military uniform.”

What he is in real life, as opposed to whatever he is while on an official visit to the United States. Poignant, yes, but also a little depressing.

But why such hostility? Americans have historically had an intense love/hate relationship with royalty.

When we revolted against Harry’s ancestor George III (Cameron is another George III descendant) in the 1770s, with it came a revulsion against the very idea of kingship. Monarchy, after all, undermines the American sense of individuality and the freedom of the individual to do with his life as he wishes. Kings are a profound reminder that there are still many things over which we simply do not have control.

But this didn’t stop us from obsessing about them, practically immediately after overthrowing them. As Arianne Chernock, assistant professor of modern British history at Boston University, wrote:

Almost as soon as ... John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay had signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Anglophilia, including a reverence for the British monarchy, began creeping back into American culture. People who lived in the early American republic, like us, pored over periodicals that presented the Hanoverians’ successes and failures in highly personal terms, a fascination that continued through the 19th and 20th centuries.

We’ve always been into this, the personalities of royalty, their habits, what they’re “really like.”

And so we keep inviting them back. The 20th century’s first major royal visit came in 1926, when Queen Marie of Romania, born, like Harry, a member of the British royal family, came to tour the U.S. The trip was intended to promote Romanian-American understanding. While the success of that is a little difficult to determine (most of us probably can’t name five facts about Romania) the trip was apparently great fun for the queen. Marie, accompanied by a somewhat shadowy press agent, traveled across the whole country, making stops in New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago before dedicating a museum in Oregon. She wrote eagerly-read articles for American periodicals about her impressions as she traveled from one coast to another.

She wasn’t popular everywhere, however. One newspaper editorial said scornfully that:

The brutal truth is that the United States recently turned down a Rumanian touch, and the Queen wanted to see if anything could be done about it—and thus raise the mortgage on her throne.

A member of the Minneapolis City Council grumbled that Queen Marie was “nothing but an international gold digger” trying to raise cash to fund her “tyrannical reign.”

But when the times get tough, we’ve shown surprising generosity to Europe’s royal families.

The next major visit of European royalty, because it occurred during the turmoil of World War II, generated far less public interest. But the visit of Princess Martha of Norway was actually pretty weird. She didn’t just visit the White House; she moved in.

In 1940, Martha, the wife of the country’s crown prince, escaped to Washington, D.C., fleeing the Nazi invasion. She settled in at the White House with her three children and became friends with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. The young royals attended local schools and the four of them stayed for years. Martha’s son, now King Harold V of Norway, stood behind the president when he took the oath of office to begin his 4th term on the South Portico. The family didn’t leave until 1945, when the war ended.

Part of this sympathy for monarchy may stem from the fact that we just kind of like royal celebrities. And not just because they’re sometimes charming and well dressed, but because we actually might rather envy their system of government. Really.

As Harvard history professor Maya Jasanoff explained:

If independence won Americans the right to feel smugly superior about our democracy, our longstanding obsession with the royal family may point to an enduring insecurity about some of the things we lost.

As our own head of state faces questions about Benghazi and how the IRS handles Tea Party tax returns, the apolitical, historically rooted head of state, detracted from the brutality of party politics, looks rather attractive. As Jasanoff puts it:

We lost a connection to hallowed traditions of the kind on which nations so often rely to confer legitimacy and create unity.

George Washington famously turned down the suggestion that he be named king of America. Yet many of the negative features associated with monarchy—hereditary power, entrenched privilege, resistance to change—exist in some form in the United States too. We didn’t put a crown on them, but this may help explain why we're so fascinated by the experience of those who did.

Since then we’ve had a number of royal visits usually accompanied by the exactly the same journalist treatment accorded to Prince Harry. There is the fluffy celebrity coverage, and the almost immediate “what the hell do we need these fancy freeloaders here for anyway” backlash. This is not likely to change soon, no matter what the personality of the royal is like.

That may be the problem. How much do personalities matter? At least part of the reason royal visitors may be so compelling, and also so disconcerting, is our suspicion that they can’t really be themselves. And that’s maybe why Americans are so eager to figure out who they are in “real life.”

One wonders what Harry talked about with the senior senator from Arizona while they looked at the land mine exhibits. Those two hearty military men, both so close to being head of state, did they compare a feeling of frustration, stuck being forever just so far away from the only job that matters?

But then, at least McCain could have gotten the job. For Harry, this sort of thing is pretty much as good as it gets. He will always be just Prince Harry, grandson of the queen, younger son of the Prince of Wales, brother of Prince William. Forever and ever, until the end of his life.